‘Gloomy old sod, aren’t I,’ Philip Larkin remarked to his friend Judy Egerton at the end of a letter routinely predicting social and political apocalypse. Yes you are, and pretty often, we might conclude, after spending 700 pages and forty-five years in his intimate, evasive company. But also funny old sod, clever old sod, wise old sod, foul-mouthed old sod, tender old sod, bitchy old sod, moving old sod. Heliotropic old sod, too, in that he turned his face to show each friend that part of him which pleased them most. Pernickety old sod, especially when it came to scouring publishers’ contracts for the sub-sub-clause which gave them the right to screw him. But never – despite a sedentary, deskbound, bachelor life – never boring old sod.
Yet also, and always, Larkinish old sod. Of course, character depends on memory, and we tend to remember those things which endorse our particular view of ourselves and the universe; even so, consider this moment when, just before his thirty-seventh birthday, the poet makes a rare raid on that ‘forgotten